Listening for a voice of Muslim youth

BBC, Apr. 4, 2003
By Dominic Casciani, BBC News Online community affairs reporter

War in Iraq has brought the opinions of British Muslims to the fore – but what influence does the radical fringe have on the young?

Somewhere in the US’s Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, there are a number of young British men.

The men, including a trio dubbed the ‘Tipton Taleban’ remain incarcerated after being seized by US forces in Afghanistan.

Why would men such as Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul and Rahul Ahmed leave their West Midlands homes to allegedly fight abroad?

Paradise, a new play in Birmingham, home to the second largest Muslim community in Britain, explores these ideas.

The play, by British-born Kashmiri Amber Lone, charts how a frustrated young man with limited prospects, Umar, falls in with an old friend-turned-radical, Younis.

Umar soon finds himself in a Muslim country, fighting for an Islamic cause that ultimately leads to his own death, shattering his family and friends.

Fashion or faith?

Imran Ali, who plays Umar, researched the part by looking at the rise of a more radical Islamic voice among his contemporaries in the midst of the current war and the fallout of 11 September.

He says many in his generation are worried that a dangerous mix of disillusionment, low self-esteem and peer pressure is making “radical Islam” more attractive.

“You see these guys wearing traditional Islamic dress – they would not have been seen dead in it five years ago,” he says.

“It’s got nothing to do with religion. It’s got everything to do with fashion. Many of these lads I know who claim they are good Muslims are more fanatical than Younis. It’s the in-thing.

“They go to mosque and pray five times. They then use the F-word to slag off other Muslims for not being as good Muslims as they are.

“I don’t think that’s particularly Islamic.”

Dangerous mixture

What is really worrying, says Imran, is how identity politics is mixing with religion, race and social conditions.

“We all need to know who we are – but don’t then say you can’t get a job because the white man doesn’t like Muslims. That’s just bollocks.

“If you can’t get a job that’s probably got more to do with what you have failed to do for yourself.”

Despite the furore over the so-called Tipton Taleban, the West Midlands has largely escaped the tensions of the northern towns such as Bradford and Oldham.

However, the far right is increasingly active in the area and Birmingham Perry Bar MP Khalid Mahmood has warned young men may take to the streets over Iraq.

Hearts and minds

At the heart of this is whether or not Britain’s young Muslims have found a voice in political life. Is it a voice based on personal conviction or drawn solely from the Koran?

One of the radical groups involved in this is the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The international Islamic party says its faith is a system that can challenge capitalism. Its members work to establish an Islamic regime across the Muslim world. Its long-term aim is for an Islamic state in Britain.

Three of its British members are on trial in Egypt accused of attempting to destabilise the state. It is vehemently opposed by Jewish groups who accuse it of anti-semitism and it has been banned in the past from various university campuses.

Birmingham-based party leader Dr Imran Waheed refuses to say how many members it has in Britain. But it is now regularly targeting students and mosques.

Last September some 9,000 people attended its London conference, though Dr Waheed freely admits he can’t say whether or not they were all supporters.

In the UK, it argues the war in Iraq is one against Islam. It says Muslims should reject lobbying through our political system because it is incompatible with their faith.

“Britain is looking after its own interests in this war,” says Dr Waheed.

“It fears Islam in its fullest political form because an Islamic state re-established in the Muslim world would be a threat to the western world.”

“This is not a war against Muslims on a religious level – but against Islam offering the only political alternative to capitalism.

“The only opposition to the dominance of western capitalism is not a nation, but a people.”

Radicalising youth?

So how far does that rejection go? “We would urge the Muslim nations to send their armies to help Iraq.”

And if a young man in Birmingham said he would be joining them?

“I would sit down and discuss with him whether that is the best method to effect change.

Is it the best method to effect change? “I would expect people to go and fight. I don’t believe it’s the way forward but I can understand why they are going. I understand the sentiment but would not say it’s the correct sentiment.”

And those who have chosen to leave and fight?

“These were people who were intoxicated in western culture – drugs, drink and promiscuity. I believe that is what led them to fight.”

What concerns many mainstream Muslims is that Hizb ut-Tahrir and others vehemently oppose the war, but tell young supporters there is no point in seeking a voice in British political life.

Isn’t the case of the Egypt three proof that it only serves to radicalise young British Muslims?

“Words like extremism, terrorist and fundamentalist are overused,” says Dr Waheed. “Anyone who seeks to bring about Islam in its political form is branded as such.”

War against Islam?

Elder statesmen in Birmingham, including Dr Mohammed Naseem of Birmingham Central Mosque, dismiss the group.

“There’s a perception that it’s a war against Islam. And I think there are powers in the world that see Islam as a threat,” says Dr Naseem.

“But there is always a danger in an emotive situation that a small group of people with little knowledge and heightened sensitivities will be attracted to extreme ideas.

“These groups have not developed to a considerable extent. Groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir are outcasts.”

In essence, says Dr Naseem, if you believe in the Koran, then you believe the words were for all mankind. You cannot withdraw from the West and argue among yourselves.

“The message of this war is one for all. Look to your faith and the power of reason, not the rise of emotions. Your obligations are to convey, converse and promote understanding for the common good. The us-and-them attitude is unislamic.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday April 4, 2003.
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